PASOLINI’S BENELLI

Fifty years ago, this Benelli scored a podium fin­ish at the TT. In Au­gust it will be back on the Is­land. Your eardrums have been warned...

Classic Bike (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS: PHILLIP TOOTH. PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: DOU­GLAS MACRAE & GREENING ARCHIVE

Renzo Pasolini’s de­li­cious 350/4 was a podium fin­sher at the TT – and it’s go­ing back this year

Vis­i­tors to this sum­mer’s Clas­sic TT will have the en­vi­able op­por­tu­nity to savour the au­ral as­sault of this open-piped Benelli 350 four-cylin­der as it shrieks over the Moun­tain. “The sound of the Benelli is much more ex­cit­ing than the MV triples and fours,” says Rob Ian­nucci. And he should know – the Benelli is one of the bikes raced by his Team Ob­so­lete, and in a ca­reer span­ning over 30 years and over 1800 races world­wide, he’s raced them all.

This is the 1967 Benelli 350/4 that Renzo Pasolini raced to sec­ond place in the 1968 Isle of Man Ju­nior TT. It’s re­turn­ing to its old stomp­ing ground for a thrash around the Moun­tain on the ‘Lap of Hon­our’ at the hands of TT win­ner and stal­wart Team Ob­so­lete rider Dave Roper. Dave has pre­vi­ously raced this very bike to vic­tory at Day­tona, but we’re get­ting ahead of our­selves – let’s go back to the his­tory of how this howl­ing, lean and green ma­chine came into be­ing...

Mak­ing mu­sic

When Benelli an­nounced in 1960 that they had built a four-cylin­der 250, there were mut­ter­ings that it was an in­fe­rior copy of the RC160 which Honda had in­tro­duced a year ear­lier. But the small Ital­ian man­u­fac­turer didn’t need to look to Ja­pan

for in­spi­ra­tion. Benelli had pre­vi­ously made a 250cc in­line four way back in 1939 – liq­uid cooled and su­per­charged, it was ru­moured to pro­duce 52bhp at 10,000rpm. But Italy’s in­volve­ment in World War II meant it never raced, and su­per­charg­ers were banned in Grands Prix af­ter the con­flict.

The air-cooled four of 1960, de­signed by In­ge­niere Aulo Savelli, used a 44mm bore and a 40.6mm stroke. Dou­ble over­head camshafts were driven by a train of gears spin­ning be­tween the cen­tre cylin­ders. There were four sep­a­rate al­loy

cylin­ders with iron lin­ers, but the heads were cast in pairs. A geared pri­mary drive ran on the left side, be­tween the first and sec­ond cylin­ders, with a six-speed clus­ter and dry clutch. Although the Honda had 16 valves, the Benelli made do with eight – but that didn’t stop it spin­ning to 13,000rpm and de­vel­op­ing 40bhp.

It was nearly two years be­fore the Benelli made its race de­but at the Shell Gold Cup, Imola in April 1962, when Sil­vio Gras­setti har­ried Tar­quinio Provini on the works Morini sin­gle, un­til he went out with a smok­ing ex­haust af­ter a valve

kissed a pis­ton as he over-revved the en­gine. Then, in an early sea­son warm-up be­fore the first GP, Gras­setti beat Jim Red­man and Tom Phillis on their works Honda fours at Ce­se­n­atico, a cir­cuit on the Adri­atic coast about 40 miles from the Benelli fac­tory at Pe­saro. As you would ex­pect, the par­ti­san crowd was ec­static.

Things were look­ing even bet­ter when new sign­ing Provini beat Red­man by 22 sec­onds af­ter 33 laps of Mon­tjuic Park to take the 1964 Span­ish GP, with Phil Read and the disc-valve Yamaha RD56 half a minute be­hind the Honda.

Although the Benelli fac­tory was strapped for cash, de­vel­op­ment con­tin­ued and by 1965 the 250 racer fea­tured a seven-speed gear­box and a shorter, lower and lighter chas­sis de­manded by Provini. The Lu­cas mag­neto was swapped for one made in Amer­ica, where it was usu­ally fit­ted to speed­boat en­gines. This was lo­cated in front of the crank­case and driven di­rectly by the crank­shaft via a set of straight and bevel gears. En­gine mod­i­fi­ca­tions re­sulted in a power hike to 52bhp at 16,000rpm.

Provini won ev­ery race in that year’s Ital­ian na­tional cham­pi­onship, but the high­light of the sea­son was when he won a rain-soaked Ital­ian GP at Monza. With 11 of the sea­son’s rounds al­ready com­pleted, how­ever, Phil Read had de­liv­ered the 250 ti­tle to Yamaha with seven wins.

At the same Ital­ian GP Provini wheeled out a 322cc ver­sion of the Benelli, achieved by tak­ing the cylin­ders out to 50mm. He fin­ished third be­hind Gras­setti’s Bianchi twin, but a lap be­hind Agos­tini and his MV. This bike would form the ba­sis of a new racer for the 1966 sea­son.

The most im­por­tant change was us­ing four valves per cylin­der, with a cen­tral spark plug. With a bore and stroke of 52 x 40.6mm the en­gine had a ca­pac­ity of 345cc – and it had a seven-speed gear­box. Run­ning with a com­pres­sion ra­tio of 11:1, it was claimed to de­liver 64bhp at 14,500rpm – im­pres­sive stuff, as MV’S triple made 63bhp at 13,500.

But af­ter a promis­ing start to the 1966 sea­son, Provini’s rac­ing ca­reer came to an end when he crashed and broke his back

dur­ing prac­tice for the Isle of Man TT, post­poned that year to Septem­ber be­cause of a sea­men’s strike. His re­place­ment was the be­spec­ta­cled Renzo Pasolini.

‘BENELLI PROMISED PASOLINI A BIKE TO RATTLE MV AGUSTA’

Renzo Pasolini

Pop­u­lar ‘Paso’ had a gen­tle sense of hu­mour and en­joyed a smoke and a drink; but although he was quiet and unas­sum­ing when he wasn’t rac­ing, on the track with his distinc­tive knee-out style he was one of the hard­est riders of his gen­er­a­tion.

He started rac­ing mo­tocross when he was still a teenager be­fore join­ing Aer­ma­c­chi, where he worked in the race de­part­ment along­side his father, a top ISDT rider. Paso soon got a fac­tory ride in na­tional events, and in 1965 teamed with num­ber one rider Gil­berto Mi­lani for the

350cc Grand Prix ti­tle chase. Their pushrod sin­gles were out­classed by Honda and MV mul­tis, but at the end of the cham­pi­onship Paso was ranked eighth, ahead of Mi­lani. That earned him a pro­mo­tion to num­ber one rider for 1966, and he fin­ished the year in third place (but way down on points, on a much slower bike) be­hind Hail­wood and Agos­tini.

Benelli tempted Paso to join them with the prom­ise of a bike that could rattle MV Agusta and it seemed they were right. At the end of 1966, on a bored-out 350, he won the 500 class at Val­lelunga, a twisty two-mile track 20 miles north of Rome. Ago fell off try­ing to pass him.

Full of prom­ise in ’67

Hav­ing se­cured third be­hind Hail­wood and Agos­tini at Hock­en­heim, Paso’s first full sea­son with Benelli in 1967 seemed to be go­ing well, but then the ac­tion moved to the Isle of Man. In the Ju­nior, at the end of lap three Hail­wood was lead­ing Ago by 2min 3.8sec, and Paso by 4min 50sec. But Paso was well ahead of the rest of the field; if the Honda or the MV gave any trou­ble and his Benelli held out, he could still win.

But it wasn’t to be – his chain broke at Creg-ny-baa and Hail­wood romped home ahead of Ago and Derek Wood­man on the 300cc MZ. Paso’s only other GP podium that year was a third at Assen be­hind Hail­wood and Agos­tini.

Honda pulled out of rac­ing at the end of 1967 and Hail­wood was handed a sub­stan­tial sum for agree­ing not to ride for an­other man­u­fac­turer in the world cham­pi­onship se­ries.

On the Ju­nior TT podium

In 1968 Paso had his work cut out – he was com­mit­ted to con­test­ing the 250, 350 and 500cc World Cham­pi­onships. Agos­tini was ex­pect­ing a much eas­ier time, but Paso rat­tled his nerves with im­pres­sive rides in the Tem­po­rada Ro­mag­nola, the early sea­son Ital­ian street­cir­cuit meet­ings.

The 350 Benelli was still run­ning strong when Paso be­gan his GP cam­paign with a sec­ond place at the Nür­bur­gring and Ago needed to break the lap record to stay in

front. Then it was time to load the bikes on the ferry to the Isle of Man...

Of course, Ago was favourite to win the Ju­nior, but there was lit­tle doubt that Paso was in with a chance. Now fin­ished in stylish green and sil­ver colours in­stead of drab grey, his Benelli was fast – dur­ing prac­tice he was timed at 152mph through the High­lander speed trap, only 0.5mph slower than the MV triple.

At 1.30pm the first two riders were flagged off. Agos­tini, his bike wear­ing the No 6 plate, started one minute ahead of Pasolini, No 17. But the MV was soon in the lead on cor­rected time as well as on the road, with an open­ing lap of 106.03mph. Pasolini did 103.15mph, and he would strug­gle to go much faster af­ter a six-inch sec­tion fell off one of his ex­haust

‘IT WAS TIMED AT 152mph THROUGH THE SPEED TRAP’

pipes. Ago in­creased his lead be­fore he came in at the end of the third lap, but his pit crew was slow. They took 48 sec­onds to fuel and check over the triple – Paso was away in 40 sec­onds af­ter chang­ing his fly­splat­tered gog­gles for clean ones.

Agos­tini never re­ally looked un­der pres­sure, though, steadily main­tain­ing his lead. Be­hind him and Paso, riders were pulling out with me­chan­i­cal prob­lems – only 40 of 86 starters would see the che­quered flag. At the end of 226.4 miles it was Ago first, with a new race record of 104.78mph, ahead of Paso (102.65mph) and Bill Smith (Honda, 95.02mph).

Short of money, Benelli didn’t con­test ev­ery round of the 1968 World Cham­pi­onship. Paso’s only other 350cc podium place was a sec­ond at Monza, which earned him enough points to make him run­ner-up to Agos­tini. It would be Pasolini’s best sea­son with the 350 Four.

See it for your­self

In the end, the Benelli 350/4 en­joyed a ca­reer that lasted al­most 10 years – it may never have won a world cham­pi­onship GP in an era dom­i­nated by Agos­tini and MV, but it did push them – and added a dif­fer­ent Ital­ian hue to the arena of world cham­pi­onship mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing.

And as for the sound... well, if you get the chance to go over to the Clas­sic TT this sum­mer, you won’t need to look out for it – you’ll hear it com­ing...

Stripped of its fair­ing, the fan­tas­tic-four is re­vealed in its glory

Cylin­der heads are cast in pairs, with four valves per cylin­der, while the gear­box is a seven-speeder

Pasolini on the Benelli in its ear­lier liv­ery at the 1967 Ju­nior TT. A bro­ken chain ended their race LEFT: Qui­etly-spo­ken Pasolini turned into a hard fighter out on the track Pasolini and the Benelli’s neme­sis: Agos­tini on the MV 350, at the ’67 Ju­nior TT Hail­wood on the Honda six at the ’67 TT. Honda pulled out of GPS at the end of the year, giv­ing Benelli more of a chance...

Pasolini at Ginger Hall in the 1968 Isle of Man Ju­nior TT, on the way to a podium fin­ish as run­ners-up LEFT: A Pasolini’s-eye view – no su­per­flu­ous dis­trac­tions here!

RIGHT: Four-cylin­der en­gine was re­cently re­built, with new crank, rods, pis­tons and valves, in the Team Ob­so­lete work­shops The Benelli is rar­ing to roll, in beau­ti­ful race-pre­pared con­di­tion Team Ob­so­lete owner Rob Ian­nucci

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